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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,647

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This is the grave of Samuel Untermyer.

Born in 1858 in Lynchburg, Virginia, Untermyer grew up in a southern Jewish family. There weren’t tons of them, but there were a few and they tended to be pretty rich. His parents had immigrated from Bavaria and became successful planters and slavers. In fact, his father was a lieutenant colonel in the Confederate military, perhaps a 10 ten most prominent Jewish Confederate behind Judah Benjamin and a few others. But the father died in 1866 and his mother sold the land and moved the family to New York, so that’s really where Untermyer grew up. He went to City College and then got a law degree from Columbia.

Untermyer and his brother Maurice would soon start one of New York’s most prominent law firms, along with Roger Marshall and Randolph Guggenheimer. Guggenheimer, Untermyer, and Marshall was a truly elite firm into the 20th century. Untermyer was a true expert on corporate law. He saw the excesses of the Gilded Age and such and urged new regulations on corporate behavior. As such, he became one of the most important legal minds behind the Progressive Era. We tend to focus on the political and social movements of the Progressives, with Louis Brandeis serving as the key legal figure in our memory. That’s certainly fine of course as far as public memory goes, but it’s worth noting that there were several critically important lawyers in these movements and Untermyer was one of the most important of them.

Now, Untermyer wasn’t a radical or anything. At times, he would work for mergers of large corporations. When he thought it wasn’t a good thing, he’d fight against it. If he supported the idea, he’d work for it. Not so different than Theodore Roosevelt’s massively overrated trustbusting, really. He also was the first lawyer to ever get paid $1 million for a case, though I am not sure which case it was. But he took on Standard Oil and made sure through his work that it didn’t dominate the sub-companies that came out of its dissolution. He fought the consolidation of the American shipping industry under U.S. Shipbuilding. But then when he broke it up, he became a big shareholder in one of the subsidiaries, a very not small company known as Bethlehem Steel.

So he was a complicated guy. But a good one mostly. What we really see here is a man who was a racially and economic conservative of the late 19th century turn slowly into a liberal by witnessing and considering the conditions of his time. One biographer has suggested that a key moment for him was when he brought Louis Marshall into his law firm, who was a Republican and also a fairly liberal one. In any case, Untermyer was a critical in the creation of the Federal Reserve, for instance, providing expert testimony and helping Congress prepare to grill people like J.P. Morgan about it. He worked at both the congressional and state level for regulation of stock exchanges. He got paid a lot of money in the cases to break up the trusts, largely because it took complicated legal maneuvers to make this happen efficiently. He not only supported but provided key testimony and advice for other critical Progressive Era financial legislation, including the Clayton Antitrust Act and the Federal Trade Commission Act.

One thing that Untermyer did share with his treasonous father was a commitment to the Democratic Party. His peak of influence was thus in the Wilson administration, when most of the major legislation he worked on was passed. He was a delegate to many Democratic conventions over the years, through his support for FDR in the 30s. He worked within the administration during World War I, including on interpreting the new legislation around the income tax. He served on the U.S. delegation to the International High Commission, which was a conference in Buenos Aires in 1916 that attempted to move toward uniform laws throughout the Americas. We can consider this a sort of precursor to NAFTA and other modern trade agreements. It didn’t really go anywhere, but this kind of uniformity appealed to a lot of people for a long time before it moved ahead.

Untermyer was also involved with the Lockwood Committee, which was a useful exploration of why New York had such a housing crisis immediately after World War I. The answer was complicated. Untermyer’s main part of this was investigating the commercial mortgage lenders jacking up fees to be upwards of 50 percent of loans. This was a big part of the problem, but the whole thing was more complicated than that. It slammed the slumlords that were tyrants to their tenants. It exposed building trade union leaders taking bribes and being involved in extortion rackets that both prevented strikes in exchange for money and forced building permits to favored people, who often didn’t do the building. In fact, the head of the New York building trades was prosecuted and sent to prison with a 5-10 year sentence for his role in the scam.

In short, the problems with housing in New York had a lot of different elements and there were lots of different people who didn’t want to pass the laws the Lockwood Committee and Untermyer suggested, including the governor, because it pushed back against the doctrine of absolute property rights that so many held near and dear. However, a set of laws did pass and made a difference. There’s more than a little we can learn from this today, not about the unions because almost no residential construction is union-built anymore, but about how one size fits all answers about housing are far too simplistic and how we need the government to engage in actions that push back against landlords or homeowners being able to control the housing market for their own interests.

For a long time, at least going back to 1890 or so, Untermyer had also believed in women’s suffrage and so strongly supported that movement and celebrated when the 19th Amendment was finally ratified in 1920. He would in fact host suffrage meetings in his house. It took awhile for his wife Minnie to get involved in the movement, but eventually she did and became a leader in New York. Another way Untermyer transformed himself was that he was initially opposed to labor unions. Samuel Gompers noted this transformation, telling someone once that Untermyer had personally told him how much he disliked the idea of a union. But not only did he come around by the 1910s to labor, in the 30s, he was a big supporter of New Deal liberalism, including the National Labor Relations Act and Fair Labor Standards Act.

Untermyer was also involved in Jewish causes. He was a Zionist, though not a particularly extreme one it seems. He also worked toward a boycott of any products from Nazi Germany beginning in 1933. He also did rich guy things. He bought a lot of art, both ancient and modern, engaged in gardening rare cultivars, etc. He bought Samuel Tilden’s estate near Yonkers, re-did it, and then decided to give it over to the city to be a park upon his own death, which it still is today.

Untermyer died in 1940 while in Palm Springs. He was 82 years old.

Samuel Untermyer is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, The Bronx, New York. The interesting sculpture on the grave was done by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who became a quite famous sculptor, despite or because of her being an extreme elite.

If you would like this series to visit other Progressives, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Brand Whitlock ended up in France and is buried in Cannes, so if LGM wants to send me over to the 25 Cannes Film Festival as its official correspondent, I can check out this grave too. David Graham Phillips is in Valhalla, New York and William U’Ren is in Portland, Oregon. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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